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A Tale of Two Ruins: The Jewellery of Plundering and Violence

Hanaa Malallah, Zainab Bahrani & Annie Webster

Fig. 1. Portrait of Lady Layard painted in 1870 by Vicente Palmaroli González, edited by Hanaa Malallah in 2021 to show Lady Layard wearing the “Bomb Wreck Jewellery” instead of the original Assyrian style jewellery.

This research paper focuses on two collections of jewellery, each created more than a century apart yet both intimately entangled with a history of violence and archaeological plundering in Iraq. The first collection, “Lady Layard’s Jewellery” (Fig.2), was made by the Phillips Brothers in 1869 using antiquities pillaged from the region of Iraq when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. The ancient stones that make up the necklace, bracelet and earrings consist of cylinder and stamp seals that Sir Austen Henry Layard1 (1817-1894) took from Iraq and had made into a wedding gift for his wife, Enid. Layard was a famed traveller, archaeologist and political agent who conducted excavations near Mosul in northern Iraq. During these excavations, he removed a large number of Assyrian antiquities, objects, and parts of buildings which were transported to, and then displayed in, the British Museum.2

The second collection, “Bomb Wreck Jewellery” (Fig. 3), was created from the wreckage of two car bombs which exploded on Al Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad on 5th March 2007. This explosion claimed the lives of thirty-eight people.3 These sets of jewellery each encapsulate two very different processes of ruination; when brought together, they testify to continuing forms of colonial violence and appropriation in the region, whether through archaeological excavations or military occupation. With each set of jewellery, the removal of ruined objects to the West decontextualizes the history of these ruins and reinscribes the discursive violence of colonial archaeological practices. These sets of jewellery, one formed from ancient artefacts and the other moulded from the wreckage of car bombs, have led us to consider how they, and the materials out of which they are formed, stand at once as a form of adornment designed to bring joy to those who wear and admire them, but at the same time reveal a history of violence, human suffering, and imperialism in Iraq.

Fig. 2. Lady Layard's Necklace, bracelet and earrings formed out of cylinder seals.
British Museum number: 105115

Fig. 3. “Bomb Wreck Jewellery’’ 2008, image by Staal, printed by Malallah.

Archaeology and politics have always been linked, as numerous scholars have made clear.4 In Iraq, this link can be seen in the nineteenth century through the endeavours of political agents and diplomats such as Layard and the French consul-cum-archaeologist Paul Emile Botta (1802-1870), who removed antiquities to the British Museum as well as the Louvre in Paris. More recently, the 2003 US-led war and occupation also utilised antiquity for its political ends and public relations operations. In the wake of the disastrous looting of the Iraq Museum in 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority headed by Paul Bremer, ordered jewellery from the Queens’ tombs at Nimrud to be exhibited for one day at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in order to demonstrate that the political situation was under control. The exhibition – which was hastily pulled together with a disregard for standard curatorial practices – was open to the press and representatives of foreign missions, but notably not the general Iraqi public (Fig 3).5

Fig.4. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq examines the ancient gold crown of an Assyrian queen on July 3rd 2003 as the Iraq Museum in Baghdad briefly re-opened.

“Lady Layard’s Jewellery” (Fig. 2) was made from Assyrian cylinder seals plundered by Layard along with the large-scale architectural works and other objects that he sent to the British Museum. He kept a number of objects for personal use as well as giving gifting some to friends. These and other objects recovered from Mesopotamia fascinated European audiences and Layard's account of his discoveries, described in Nineveh and its Remains (1848-1849), became a best-seller. In 1851 he retired from archaeology to take up a life in politics and in 1869 married Enid, the daughter of his cousin. As a wedding present, he had a number of the seals which he had acquired during his travels made up into jewellery in Victorian gold settings.6

The jewellery which Layard gifted to his new wife remains on display at the British Museum today, along with portraits of Layard and his wife (Fig. 5). Notably, while the description of these items in the museum acknowledges the origin of the seals from Iraq, it makes no comment about the colonial history in which they are entangled, nor the politics of repurposing these ancient stones as items of jewellery. As these stones are displayed in a building that was in many ways the epicentre of Britain’s colonial archaeological practices, they stand as a symbol of the continuing colonial, or neo-colonial, entanglement between Britain and Iraq.

Fig. 5a. Layard and lady Layard portraits and jewellery at the British Museum. Photograph: Malallah, 2019.

Fig.5b. Original portrait of Lady Layard by Vicente Palmaroli González (1870); oil on canvas in heavy gilt frame showing Lady Layard wearing her jewellery in the Assyrian style. []

Fig 6. Engraving: Lowering the Great Bull, Frontispiece, From Austen Henry Layard, Nineveh and its Remains. A Narrative of an Expedition to Assyria during the years 1845, 1846, and 1847. London: Johan Murray, 1867.

This colonial history is vividly illustrated in the frontispiece of Layard’s Nineveh and its Remains (Fig. 6). Here we see Layard standing as a lone figure above the palace at Nimrud, the local labourers, portrayed with darker skin, and differing dress, positioned below him while he gives orders with hand gestures. His position, towering above, is one of colonial control and authority in contrast to the degradation of local labourers. Archaeology in Iraq became an area of interest for western explorers and diplomats as Mesopotamia was considered to be the cradle of civilization and Mesopotamian antiquities, including those discovered by Layard’s excavations, were understood as evidence of the origins of Western civilization.7

In a very different way, the “Bomb Wreck Jewellery” testifies to the continued presence of colonial attitudes and forces in twenty-first century Iraq. This jewellery was made by Dutch jewellers in collaboration with Dutch visual artist Jonas Staal (b. 1981) as part of a larger project that sought to repurpose wreckage from the car bombs used in Al Mutanabbi street to “broaden the perspective of the Iraq War in the West” and “bring about a different vision of the Iraq issue to replace the apathy amongst the public toward the vacuous death count”.8 In the first stage of the project, titled “Anatomy of a Car Bomb Wreckage”, remains of the cars were displayed in Rotterdam in front of Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. A symposium was held, inviting journalists, artists and academics to respond to this display. The “Bomb Wreck Jewellery” was then developed as a follow-up project, as Staal describes:

“In March 2008, I met with visual artists and jewellery makers Jiska Hartog and Michiel Henneman to discuss a subsequent presentation of the wrecks. The primary matter at hand was how, after the exhibition and symposium, the process of displaying the objects could be further developed. How could the meaning of the bomb wrecks be further explicated in a Dutch, Western context? The project “Bomb Wreck Jewellery” is the result of this.

[…] we have developed a jewellery collection made up of scrap pieces from the bomb wrecks on Al Mutanabbi Street, consisting of glass melted by the heat of the blast, metal shards, wire and motor parts. Only minimal additions have been made to these ‘shards’ to allow them to be worn as jewellery. Processed black silver was the material used to put the segments together so they could be worn and so they would be recognisable as jewellery.’’9

Jewellery is often viewed as a form of adornment and in many areas of the world, including Iraq, is often understood to have a talismanic function by protecting its wearer from dangers. Yet in the case of these items crafted out of the debris from al-Mutanabbi street, this jewellery holds a distinctly commemorative function. It stands for the suffering and pain of the lives lost, and those injured, in this attack. The repurposed material provokes uncomfortable questions: if the first project highlights the “anatomy” of the car wreckage, what is the “anatomy” of this jewellery? Might there be human remains contained within this wreckage which has been transformed into decorative objects? Even if these remains are not materially enmeshed, how do these decorative objects symbolise the lives lost in this attack? What relationship would the wearer of this jewellery – or even an observer – have with the attack on Al Mutanabbi Street? Staal acknowledges some of these tensions in his discussion of the project when he describes how:

“The main focus of the collection is the value of the scrap pieces from the bob wrecks. The melted, coagulated pieces of glass, the rusted, twisted pieces of steel salvaged from the wrecks are of course, in terms of the material itself, worthless. It is the history of the material, the incomprehensible suffering hidden within, which determines the value of the objects. […] The selected form of the jewellery forces the bomb wreck remains into a Western, capitalistic system, while its actual value cannot be determined by this system in its entirety: here the observer is faced with an individual, ethical conflict.10

While there may be a “value” in constructing this form of display, and confronting western observers with such disturbing items of jewellery, the project reproduces a long history of ruined objects being removed from Iraq and displayed far from their place of origin. It also overlooks the fact that this debris is already inherently embedded in capitalist systems as the attack was in many ways a consequence of the 2003 US-led invasion and its attempts to “reconstruct” Iraq in the mould of a western liberal democracy. This wreckage does not have to be re-crafted as jewellery to be forced into this context: it stands as a form of “imperial debris”, to use Ann Laura Stoler’s term, intimately entangled with systems of capitalism and their legacies.11

This jewellery signifies the ongoing violence permeating Iraq, with the explosion on Al Mutanabbi street only one of many resulting from the continued oppression and occupation of the country in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion. The explosion was an attack on the historical and contemporary culture of Baghdad, destroying many of the bookstalls and literary cafes that lined this street famed for its booksellers. While the “Bomb Wreck Jewellery” commemorates this violence, it also reproduces a long history of colonial violence enacted against the country through archaeology as contemporary ruins are extracted from the country and decontextualized.

This curatorial process provokes further uncomfortable questions. Where are the voices of Iraqi artists or researchers in this project? How does this artistic experiment take into consideration the trauma of this historical event? And why is it necessary for these objects to be displayed in western countries rather than Iraq? The removal of this car wreckage and its display in western countries might shed light on the tragedies of Iraq, but also underlines the ongoing subaltern position of Iraqis. There is an urgent need to consider the ways in which these contemporary ruins are entangled with, and speak to, the ancient ruins plundered from Iraq in the nineteenth century by those such as Layard.

The wreckage of the second car bomb exploded on Al Mutanabbi street was exhibited in various locations as an installation-sculpture (Fig.7). British artist Jeremy Deller travelled with it as a “mobile museum” across the US before it ultimately ended up on display at the Imperial War Museum, where it remains today.12 The Guardian described this exhibit as “A piece by Turner prize winner Jeremy Deller entitled Baghdad, 5 March 2007”.13 The wreckage of this car bomb is attributed to a British artist while the date of the attack on Al Mutanabbi street is abstracted as a title for the display. Reflecting on this installation, Deller himself remarked: “I couldn’t think of a better home for it in this country”.14 This comment inevitably begs the question: where else, beyond Britain’s borders, might there be a better home for this display? The installation encapsulates colonial attitudes that continue to surround Iraq, and its ruins, in the twenty-first century; rather than allow these remains to be a testimony to the violence catalysed by a period of neo-colonial intervention and occupation, they have been exported to a country that is in many ways responsible for, or at least entangled in, modes of historical and contemporary violence in Iraq. Deller’s comments echo the remarks of scholar Magnus Bernhardsson when describing how Western archaeologists exploring the ruins of Mesopotamia in the nineteenth century were “returning to their infancy – to their “cradle” – and as they started to dig into the earth to find traces of those roots, they somehow naturally felt the need to relocate those artefacts to their current home.”15

When brought together, the tales of these two sets of jewellery crafted out of ruins reveal the ways in which the remains of Iraq’s modern and ancient history “co-exist” in a decontextualized state of colonial control. In the image with which this research paper opened, Hanaa Malallah has edited the original portrait of Lady Layard wearing her jewellery formed from Assyrian seals to show her instead wearing the twenty-first century “Bomb Wreck Jewellery.” This small act of editing performs its own subversive form of decontextualization, drawing a direct line between these two sets of jewellery and exposing their shared colonial history across centuries. The process of excavating the intricate histories behind their creation, and tracing the ways in which they have been displayed, allows these ruins to speak for themselves – and to each other – after a long period of enforced silence.

Fig 7. The second exploded car on display at Hayward Gallery/London 2009, Jeremy Deller, Photo Lynda Nylind.

1 John Curtis and Julian Reade, Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum, London: 1995, p. 220; British Museum. The necklace was bequeathed to the British Museum by Lady Layard. See:

2 For the career and role of Layard in the appropriation of Assyrian antiquities see F.N. Bohrer, Orientalism and Visual Culture, Cambridge University Press, 2003 and Shawn Malley, From Archaeology to Spectacle in Victorian Britain: the case of Assyria, 1845-1854. Farnham: Ashgate Press, 2011; and Z. Bahrani, Z. Celik and Edhem Eldem eds, Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753-1914, Istanbul: Salt, 2011.

3 Hartog, Jiska and Henneman, Michiel and Staal, Jonas, Bomb Wreck Jewellery, The Edge & Publisher, Hofstraat, 2009, 2009, p. 2

4 On the historical entanglement of archaeology and politics in Iraq, see M. Bernhardsson, Reclaiming a Plundered Past, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005; on more recent entanglements during the 2003 US-led invasion see Lawrence Rothfield, The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009.

5 Zainab Bahrani was present during the lead up to the event and at the exhibition itself. These remarks are based on her personal diary from that time.

7 Zainab Bahrani, “Conjuring Mesopotamia. Imaginative Geography and a World Past” in Archaeology Under Fire, London: Routledge, 1998: 159-174.

8 Hartog, Jiska and Henneman, Michiel and Staal, Jonas, Bomb Wreck Jewellery, The Edge & Publisher, Hofstraat, 2009, p.3.

9 Hartog, Jiska and Henneman, Michiel and Staal, Jonas, Bomb Wreck Jewellery, The Edge & Publisher, Hofstraat, 2009, p.3.

10 Hartog, Jiska and Henneman, Michiel and Staal, Jonas, Bomb Wreck Jewellery, The Edge & Publisher, Hofstraat, 2009.

11 Ann Laura Stoler (Ed.), Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination, Durham, Duke University Press, 2013.

15 M. Bernhardsson, Reclaiming a Plundered Past, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005, p. 34.

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